News Gathering:The Fourth Generation

Right after the start of a recent evening newscast, staffers at the Sinclair Broadcasting Groups’ Fox affiliate WZTV Nashville learned that a police car had been involved in a head-on collision. It was the kind of story they needed to get on the air before the end of the program, but that night, the station did not have a microwave or satellite truck available.

In the past, that would have meant reporting the story without video, or relying on poor-quality video sent back from a smartphone. Thanks to the availability of a good 4G wireless connection, however, WZTV was able to get a reporter and cameraman to the scene to quickly send high-quality video wirelessly over the Verizon 4G network to the studio using Streambox’s Avenir mobile encoding product.

“It is a very fast and efficient way to work,” says Bob Shrader, chief news photographer at WZTV. “You can be up and transmitting with this thing in less time than it takes to get the mast up on a satellite truck.”

Wireless carriers began major deployments of 4G, or fourth-generation cellular networks, last year, and the major carriers have announced plans to cover most of the country by 2013 with very high-speed 4G services. Verizon, for example, began rolling out its 4G network to 38 markets reaching about 100 million American homes in December 2010; national coverage is expected within three years.

Speeds vary, but at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month, Verizon streamed 3D content at 18 megabits per second (Mbps) over its 4G LTE network. In general, the carrier is promising 5 to 12 Mbps downloads and 2 to 5 Mbps uplinks for its 4G service to consumers. Several vendors, including Nomad Innovations and Streambox, have already developed products that deliver video over 4G networks. These products are likely to see significant enhancements over the next year.

One major impact will be on the usage of microwave and satellite trucks, which have been an integral part of the local TV news business for decades but are much more expensive than the newer 4G technologies.

“We have a solution that offers more than a 75% savings on the capital and operating expense of microwave and satellite technology,” says Bob Klingle, CEO of Nomad Innovations, which is selling a LiveEdge 4G product.

Speed, ease of use and the ability to create more content at less cost for multiple platforms are also major advantages, says Bob Hildeman, chairman and CEO of Streambox. “This acquisition engine will allow [broadcasters] to bring in a lot more content for less cost, and that will allow them to go to multiplatform delivery,” Hildeman says.

In recent equipment tests in Seattle, Streambox was able to transmit live or stored broadcast-quality standard-definition video at 1.5 to 2 Mbps and HD video at 2 to 5 Mbps, according to Hildeman.

Del Parks, VP of engineering and operations at the Sinclair Broadcast Group, notes his stations are already using the Streambox devices over 3G and 4G networks in markets such as Nashville and Baltimore to send standard-definition footage. Sinclair plans to deploy the boxes more widely to other stations this year.

Sinclair’s enthusiastic embrace of the technology aside, Parks stresses that “this is not a replacement for a live truck.”

Many rural areas, he notes, have poor cell reception; on high-profile stories, stations can’t take the chance of not being able to send back video if the 4G network is flooded with calls.

“You can get to the scene first with Streambox, but if you are covering a hostage situation or something like that for hours, we will want to send a live truck,” Parks says.

But WZTV’s Shrader believes the technology is ready for primetime as a supplement to the station’s trucks “You do have a learning curve, but I wouldn’t wait for 4G to improve,” he says. “I’d jump on it. It is much faster and more efficient than rolling a live truck.”

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